Renewed life for steeple at historic Smyrna church

SMYRNA — Rising high above the Smyrna skyline, the steeple on Asbury United Methodist Church is hard to miss, especially lately.

The scaffolding now encasing the eight-story landmark, the highest structure in the town of a bit more than 10,000, is the latest step in a journey that began more than a year ago, according to the church’s pastor.

Once renovation is complete, the steeple will have a new steel skeleton inside it. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Once renovation is complete, the steeple will have a new steel skeleton inside it. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Once the renovation is finished, in time for the Oct. 18 rededication, the building on Mount Vernon Street will have the internal support needed to last another hundred years, or longer.

The steeple is getting more than a painted face-lift, the Rev. Dale Brown said this week. Inside, its bones will be fortified with steel beams marrying existing wooden ones weakened by the toil of 143 years and carpenter bees.

A costly steel spine will stretch from the top of the steeple, through the second floor sanctuary and down into the ground.

The church wall adjoining the steeple also will receive needed structural attention and steel rods will reinforce brickwork to compensate for aging mortar.

Not to be left out, the smaller tower that complements the steeple will be freshened up, too, said Mr. Brown, of Smyrna.

The work is being done by PHB Inc. contractors from Middletown. “They are a delight to work with,” he said.

Many people are involved in the project, the pastor emphasized. “The laity of the church, the trustees, have provided great leadership.”

He described how trustees have been hands-on, managing finances and helping to smooth construction bumps along the way.

“It’s a team project to make positive things happen.”

Such a renovation project, particularly on a historic church, was not entered lightly.

The church traces its roots to 1780 and famed evangelist Francis Asbury. A frame church was built in 1786 on land donated by Revolutionary War hero Allen McLane, according to the book “Churches of Delaware.” A brick building replaced that one in 1844, but a fire in 1869 damaged it.

The existing sanctuary opened its doors in 1872.

Asbury UMC Asbury United Methodist Church is located at 20 W. Mount Vernon St., Smyrna, and holds Sunday morning services at 8:30, 9:30 and 11. The chapel is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information on the church and for additional service times, visit asburysmyrnaumc.org, email asburyumcsmyrna@gmail.com or call (302) 653-8415,

Asbury UMC
Asbury United Methodist Church is located at 20 W. Mount Vernon St., Smyrna, and holds Sunday morning services at 8:30, 9:30 and 11. The chapel is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information on the church and for additional service times, visit asburysmyrnaumc.org, email asburyumcsmyrna@gmail.com or call (302) 653-8415,

The pastor, a native of Pocomoke City, Maryland, is quite cognizant of the steeple’s high profile.

“It’s as historic as it could be,” Mr. Brown said. “We want to be a good neighbor.”

Not only did the church want the backing of town officials, but it also had to get permission from the Charge Conference, a United Methodist governing organization, on how the money to pay for the renovation would be raised.

More than $500,000 was raised, Mr. Brown said, through a capital campaign administrated by a Christian-based professional fundraiser.

Church members made a three-year pledge commitment, he said,

The money not only goes toward the renovation, but also will keep $300,000 in the equivalent of a rainy day fund and help the church’s outreach ministry.

“Asbury is all about changing lives,” Mr. Brown said, “so how can we look at the community and meet its needs?”

Mr. Brown expects the renovation to help the church better meet those needs. For example, the church has a clothing closet from which it gives away men’s and women’s clothing, but has lacked a way to store and display donated garments.

It also needed more room for the food pantry, operated in conjunction with the Smyrna-Clayton Ministerium.

“It’s used every day,” Mr. Brown said, as people rely on the pantry when they run short between receiving food vouchers from the state of Delaware.

But for the Asbury congregation, it’s not about simply pointing to numbers helped. “These are people God created.”

The outreach ministry gives more than food for the stomach or clothes for the body, he said. Emotional bonds also develop.

Scaffolding surrounds the steeple at Asbury United Methodist Church Friday morning as renovations are under way on the historic Smyrna landmark. The current church was built in 1872. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Scaffolding surrounds the steeple at Asbury United Methodist Church Friday morning as renovations are under way on the historic Smyrna landmark. The current church was built in 1872. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

He estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of those who receive help from the church are not members.
A new addition to Asbury’s outreach ministry is doing building and light home repairs.

“The first ramp was for a severe diabetic,” Mr. Brown said. “She had an electric chair but couldn’t get out of her house. So we built a ramp.”

The church is taking applications from those needing help and while the first two were members of the congregation of more than 670, “ultimately it’ll be for whomever needs help most,” he said.

“Most of what Asbury does is geared for concern for its community,” Mr. Brown said. “Help is never contingent on them coming to church.”

Of course, the pastor wouldn’t say no to more people joining the church. An average of 213 attend Sunday services and this year a goal was set to recruit 30 new members.

That’s going well with new membership in the “upper 20s.”

One thing those new members won’t be able to do is climb the steps inside the steeple to add their names to those that once adorned the interior wall.

The crumbling horsehair plaster had to come down, Mr. Brown said.

“But we documented all the signatures.”

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